The hugely popular act of text messaging is many different things to many different people, from a cool way to keep in touch at one end of the spectrum to something that is destroying the English language at the other. You can use SMS to hack an iPhone or send sexy text messages in Scotland and risk ten years in prison. One thing that most people would not consider SMS to be, however, is a life saver.
OK, I can kind of see a scenario where someone has collapsed in their house and is unable to move so turns to the mobile phone to call for help. But even then, unless they were unable to talk as well I doubt that text messaging would be their saviour. Yet IBM, Novartis and Vodafone reckon they can use SMS to potentially save millions of lives in Africa.
The Roll Back Malaria Partnership 'SMS for Life' initiative is already helping to save lives using everyday technology to improve the availability of anti-malarial drugs in remote areas of Tanzania for example. And it is doing this by using a combination of mobile phones, SMS technologies and intuitive web sites to track and manage the supply of Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT) drugs and Quinine injectables, both of which are key to reducing the number of deaths from malaria.
Malaria is responsible for some one million deaths in Africa each and every year, mostly among pregnant women and young children, and mostly preventable. Huge numbers of people die simply because they lack quick access to life saving medication. And so it was that the concept of using text messaging in order to improve the stock management of these medicines was developed by pharmaceutical company Novartis and a team of international students taking part in IBM's internship programme, Extreme Blue.
The team developed SMS for Life, with IBM tasked to manage the project and Vodafone stepping in to develop and manage a system based on simple SMS messaging that would help ensure dispensaries did not run out of vital stock. After visits to clinics, hospitals and dispensaries across Tanzania, IBM, Novartis and Vodafone initiated a five month pilot of the SMS for Life solution, covering 135 villages and over a million people in different geographic locations across Tanzania. Healthcare staff at each facility receive automated SMS messages, which prompt them to check the remaining stock of anti-malarial drugs each week. Using toll-free numbers, staff reply with an SMS to a central database system hosted in the United Kingdom, providing details of stock levels, and deliveries can be made before supplies run out at local health centres.
During the first few weeks of the pilot, the number of health facilities with stock-outs in one district alone, was reduced by over 75%. The early success of the SMS for Life pilot project has the Tanzanian authorities interested in implementing the solution across the rest of the country. Tanzania has around 5000 clinics, hospitals and dispensaries, but at any one time, as many as half could potentially be out of stock of anti-malarial drugs.
“The SMS for Life program has already had a positive effect in Tanzania,” says Senior Health Officer with Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Tanzania, Winfred Mwafongo. “I've seen district medical officers ordering urgent stock replacements for various health facilities. During a visit to 19 rural health facilities in one district alone, I saw huge improvements in their inventory management systems. I'm very impressed with the results so far and look forward to following the rest of the pilot through to completion."